Five young Egyptian women have each received a 2-year prison sentence for posting “indecent” videos on TikTok. The court ruling included a fine of nearly $19,000 for “violating the values and principles of the Egyptian family”. The women’s lawyers have vowed to appeal the decision. A group called TikTokWoman has launched a petition on Change.org, calling on the national council to provide legal support for all TikTok users arrested. They also named four more arrested women.
TikTok Influencers “Indecent” and “Dissolute”
The prison sentences and sky-high fines form part of a crack-down by the Egyptian government on the “loose morals” of influencers on social media. It is, however, the first time that the Egyptian court has passed a judgement against popular TikTok influencers in Egypt. The charges range from violating family values and “drawing attention to themselves”, to inciting debauchery and, in some cases, human trafficking and engaging in commercial sex.
Many have noted that women from low income backgrounds are disproportionally targeted and receive harsher sentences. In contrast, many upper and upper middle-class Egyptian women enjoy a great deal more autonomy and personal liberty. They are also seldom prosecuted for their choice of dress, even when on social media.
The court sentenced five women to two years’ imprisonment. In addition, they each must pay a fine of nearly $19,000 (300,000 Egyptian pounds). Salaries vary drastically in Egypt, ranging from $200/month (minimum salary) to $1,000/month (highest average salary, but actual maximum can be much higher). But whatever their means, for these five young women the amount of their fines is astronomical.
Who Are These Women?
Only two of the women were named in the prosecution statement, Haneen Hossam and Mawada al-Adham. Haneen is a 20-year old Cairo University student with 1.3 million followers on TikTok. Haneen was arrested in April for posting a 3-minute TikTok video telling girls they could earn money by working for her. She was charged with “encouraging young women to meet and befriend men”. Mawada is 22 and has at least 2 million followers on TikTok and Instagram combined. Her satirical photos and videos have been labeled as “indecent” and “licentious”. She was arrested in May. Three other women were charged with helping Haneen and Mawada manage their social media accounts.
Several human rights activists have condemned the arrests. A group called “TikTok Women” also launched a petition on Change.org demanding the release of the influencers and calling on the national council to provide legal support for all arrested TikTok users. The group also named four more arrested women. So far, the petition has received close to 2,000 signatures.
“We are a group of women calling on state authorities to stop targeting women on TikTok. We call on the National Council for Women to provide legal support for Haneen Hossam, Mawada El-Adham, Menna AbdelAziz, Sherry Hanem, Nora Hesham, Manar Samy, Reenad Emad, Hadeer Hady, and Bassant Mohamed”, the petition says.
TikTok Increasingly Popular…
In November 2017, Beijing based internet technology company ByteDance acquired the app musical.ly for a reported $1 billion. The app allowed users – mostly young children and adolescents – to record and share short, 3 to 15-second lip-sync videos. The humorous short clips usually featured dance moves and/or play back. At that stage the app had over 200 million users.
In August 2018, ByteDance merged musical.ly into TikTok, and introduced users to a bigger, worldwide community. From that moment on, the app has been on the rise. Today, TikTok is available in over 150 markets in 39 languages. The latest available estimates set the number of users at approximately 800 million worldwide. In 2019 alone, TikTok was downloaded 738 million times.
The popularity of TikTok is also increasing in Egypt. Especially since the start of the coronavirus crisis, usage rates have skyrocketed. Confined to their homes, there is not much else to do. TikTok proved to be an ideal platform for people in Egypt to freely express themselves through funny and engaging videos and feel empowered.
… But also Very Controversial
Like Egypt, there are many countries who would like to block TikTok, for various reasons. Countries like Indonesia, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan have blocked, temporarily blocked and/or issued warnings over the content of TikTok. They claim the videos are “obscene, immoral and vulgar”.
Other countries have raised privacy concerns. This is an ongoing issue. The concerns primarily relate to the fact that TikTok is owned by a Chinese company. Some governments are suspicious, fearing the app is linked to the ruling Chinese Communist party (CCP). Australia and the US have been debating whether to ban the app for this reason.
Furthermore, in 2019, parent company ByteDance was hit by a fine from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) because the app collected data from children under the age of 13 without their parent’s permission. That is prohibited by law in the US. The case was eventually settled for $5.7 million.
At the beginning of this year, TikTok faced criticism because of their “discriminatory and problematic company policies”. TikTok admitted that it had suppressed videos by disabled people, overweight people, as well as LGBTQ+ users in a purported effort “to limit cyberbullying”. TikTok also takes little action against discriminatory and sexually oriented comments. ByteDance promises to do better.